From Busboy to Aide: A Farewell to Leahy

The first time Luke Albee met Sen. Patrick Leahy (D), he didn’t leave the Vermont lawmaker with much of an impression.

But Albee acknowledges that’s probably because he was too awed to introduce himself.

At the time, Albee was a student at the University of Vermont, working in a local restaurant as a busboy.

When the Senator came into the restaurant, Albee — who admired Leahy for his support of the 1979 Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty II — cleared his table. But he didn’t have the nerve to strike up a conversation with the lawmaker.

Instead, Albee recalled in a recent interview: “I went back to my apartment ... and applied for an internship. And got turned down.”

In 1982, after graduating and earning a graduate degree from the London School of Economics, Albee made another run at Capitol Hill. This time he found a job in the Vermonter’s office answering mail.

Now, more than two decades later, Albee, who became chief of staff in 1993, is nearing his final day in Leahy’s office. He will soon embark on a new career the Washington, D.C.-based lobbying firm Ricchetti Inc.

Albee, described by colleagues as a “consummate professional” and skilled at “finding common ground” in the chamber, “decided it was time to start a new chapter in my life.”

He rattles off a short inventory of events that have had notable impacted his career in recent years: the contested 2000 presidential election; the decision by Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords to switch from Republican to Independent in 2001; the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the October 2001 discovery of anthrax on Capitol Hill; and ex-Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s (D) 2004 presidential campaign.

“I’ve had as much excitement as any person should endure,” Albee says.

Among his most memorable experiences Albee counts the 1998 impeachment trial of then-President Bill Clinton — which he considers “the longest and most sustained challenge I faced up here” — as well as a 1999 visit to Cuba lead by Leahy and Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), during which the group dined with Cuban President Fidel Castro.

“Having the opportunity to have a five-hour dinner with Fidel Castro, and being able to talk [about] baseball among many other things with Castro, is something that I’ll never forget,” Albee said.

The events of the autumn of 2001 also remain fixed in his memory. Indeed, Albee inadvertently had a ringside seat in the Capitol Hill anthrax attacks, which began on Oct. 15, 2001, when an anthrax-laced envelope was opened in the office of then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.).

The previous month, the first letters containing anthrax had begun to appear in the mailboxes of media organizations, beginning with the American Media Inc. offices in Florida, home to the National Enquirer. At that point, Albee, along with Deputy Chief of Staff Clara Kircher, decided to halt mail deliveries to their offices.

Discussing their decision years later, Albee refers to the words of former Brooklyn Dodgers manager Branch Rickey: “Luck is the residue of design.”

“When I first heard that members of the press, including [NBC News anchor] Tom Brokaw, had received these letters, I just had a gut feeling that if someone out there, if you hate the press, in all likelihood, you don’t like your government much either,” said Albee, who won praise in Marilyn Thompson’s 2003 book, “The Killer Strain: Anthrax and a Government Exposed.” “I just worried that politicians could be the next target.”

Albee’s decision was validated when the first letter arrived in Daschle’s office. And more so when nearly a month later a second letter — this one addressed to Leahy — was discovered among quarantined mail.

While Albee praised the actions of Congressional officials and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, among others, in responding to the discovery of the letter addressed to Leahy, Albee admits that he remains critical of initial response to the discovery of the deadly virus, calling it “woefully inadequate.”

“While hindsight is 20/20, I think we would have been far better served if the authorities who were in charge ... made the admission this was a new challenge for them,” Albee said.

Among his concerns, Albee pointed to information provided to Senate staff that often proved to be inaccurate.

“In retrospect, we were told too many things that turned out to be wrong,” Albee said. “And that did not inspire confidence.”

“There was a little too much certainly before all the facts were known,” he added.

While the anthrax incident would lead to five deaths nationwide and prompt a $27 million cleanup effort that closed the Hart Senate Office Building for three months, federal investigators have yet to charge anyone in the incident.

Explaining his personal view on the event, Albee said: “I don’t believe there is a crazed homicidal person out there who is dying to strike again. ...

“But I have been frustrated that whoever did this hasn’t been caught. It’s very frustrating.”

But Albee insists that, while they were significant, it is not those historical events he values most from his long career.

“In general, the highlight for me has been working with Sen. Leahy,” Albee said.